Monsoon rains could hit India’s southern coast on Friday, slightly later than normal, against forecasts of below-average rains and a possible El Nino weather pattern that could hurt economic recovery and keep prices high.
Dark clouds gathered over Kerala, monsoon’s first point of entry into India on Thursday but after a brief drizzle, the sun shone again, delaying the arrival of the seasonal rains so crucial for about 600 million Indians dependent on farming.
Weather officials, though, were not sounding the alarm bells yet, saying this year’s monsoon could still be plenty. Usually, the four-month rainy season begins from June 1 but this year it was forecast to hit the Kerala coast on June 5, give or take five days.
"No need to worry. Cloud formation is strong. It is expected to hit the Kerala coast in 24 hours," S Sudevan, a senior scientist with the Indian Meterological Centre in Thiruvananthapuram, told HT.
Heavy rains are already lashing Sri Lanka and India has received plenty of pre-monsoon showers. Usually, it takes around 24-48 hours for monsoon rains to arrive on the south of coastal Kerala after crossing the northern tip of Sri Lanka.
A normal monsoon means the country receives rainfall between 96-104 percent of a 50-year average of 89 centimetres during the rainy season, according to the India's weather office classification. This year, monsoon rains are forecast at 95 percent of the long term average.
Good rains will be crucial for the new government’s efforts to prop up the economy from its slowest growth since the 1980s as well as to cool inflation that averaged nearly 10 percent for the past two years.
The government has stockpiled staples such as rice, wheat and sugar from bumper harvests in the last few years but it has limited means to control a jump in costs of fruits and vegetables that have the largest impact on food inflation in India.
High prices could prevent the Reserve Bank of India easing rates to boost the economy. Conversely, good rains contribute to overall market confidence.
"We have pinned much hope on it. Good rain means better returns," K N Panicker, a paddy farmer in Kerala's rice bowl Kuttanad, said. “What we need is steady rainfall in coming days. If it plays hide and seek we'll be in trouble."
Bad rains could also undermine output of cotton, sugarcane and oil seed meal which India exports while forcing the country to import more edible oils and pulses.
This year’s monsoon could also hold political implications for farming states such as Haryana and Maharashtra where assembly elections are due next year. This is because there is a direct correlation between ample rains and rural incomes, although with agriculture’s falling share in the economy, the impact of monsoon on wider economic growth has diminished.
Bad rainfall could also see farmers in these states seek higher rates for their produce and waiver of loan repayment and electricity charges, steps that could impact public finances.
But the initial delay in the arrival of monsoon, blamed on local weather phenomenon, may not mean less rain.
In 2009, India suffered its worst drought in four decades despite the wet season starting on time, whereas four years earlier the monsoon came quite late but the country still received above-average rainfall.
A greater worry is the forecast of a high chance of El Nino, a weather warming event over the Pacific Ocean associated with droughts in some regions.
Meteorological officials said the current El Nino threshold was way below the danger mark of 1.5 degrees, referring to the heat content in the sea surface temperature that dries up raining-inducing moist air. Scientists expect El Nino to hit around late August when, fortunately, most sowing is over and the Indian monsoon season begins to taper.
Also, an El Nino weather pattern necessary portend bad news for India. In 1997, when El Nino wrought havoc in many parts of the world, it had little impact on the Indian subcontinent.